My daughter Joy, in so many ways, is like my mother Vera–competent, feisty, determined, smart, no-nonsense, generous, gracious, and loving. Many of her mannerisms mimic Vera’s as well, yet Joy barely knew my mother. She died soon after Joy’s fifth birthday. Unlike both my mother and me, though, Joy came into the world wired with a feminist vision. Comfortable in her own skin from the “get-go,” she did not shrink from asserting her right (quietly–she’s an introvert) to participate in whatever caught her fancy “out there.” She always had a strong sense of autonomy and resists, along with other feminists, when men (or to be more accurate–the patriarchal social system that informs us) attempt to shape public policy based on (primarily) men’s experiences and political agendas.
It took some time for me to understand the structured (and toxic) nature of gender inequality within our society, and even more time to learn to “speak that truth to power.” During Joy’s formative years, I tried my best to instill into her what I had been taught–women were created primarily to be “help-meets” for their husbands and by extension, men. Joy never bought into that “truth.” I could tell by the way she lived. For example, Joy liked to cook. When she prepared a dish, she balked if (when) family members just helped themselves to the fruits of her labor. She insisted they first ask to partake of the food she prepared. She would not be taken for granted.
Although my mother, Vera, chafed at the myriad injustices (based on her sex) that she experienced, her conservative, fundamentalist understanding of Christianity never allowed her to call for an overhaul to society, believing that governments (one of the structures of society) are in place because God ordained such. Who are we to question God’s “wisdom?” To be sure, she looked forward to “a new heaven and a new earth,” but trusted God to bring that about “in His time and in His way.”
I liked it, though, when Vera spoke up in front of my father, pointing out the injustice of wage discrepancy between women and men. It was especially delicious when she fanned out the concept to include, in addition to women, people who are “othered,” based on race and ethnicity. She never got to a place where she could include the LGBTQI community in her vocal outrage although I think she would have eventually arrived there had she lived longer. She died just shy of her 60th birthday. I also liked it when she responded to my father’s criticisms of her (too much of a “mother,” not enough of a “wife,” and interfering with his discipline of the children) with the biblical passage, “the woman thou givest me,” referring to the Genesis story of “The Fall” where the man blames the woman for influencing him to eat the “forbidden fruit,” attempting to absolve himself from God’s accusatory finger. (Even TV psychologist, Dr. Phil, had he been privy to my parents’ altercations, might have asked my father, “What’s your ownership in all of this, Joe?”)
Vera laid bare the patriarchal proclivity that blames women for whatever (and all that) is the matter. She opened up a space for me to see differently–a space often hidden by the official stance she (at least, intellectually) and her religious community held. Every so often, Vera gave voice to a viewpoint that differed considerably from the orthodoxy of her faith community. I began to see that Vera’s “life experiences” colored and sometimes changed what she thought of as “The Truth.” Truth, I began to discover, was not “set in stone.” Integrating that discovery into my own life took time. After all, what do justice, mercy, compassion, and love (all words reflecting some aspect of truth) look like when worked out in the “rough and tumble” of daily living? I eventually appreciated that truth comes in a wide variety of colors–not just in black and white.
My daughter, Joy, married shortly after graduating from college, held a job for a while, birthed two children, lived for a time in a stifling marriage, divorced her husband, moved to a new neighborhood, returned to school for an advanced degree (Masters in Information Science), obtained work earning a decent salary (eventually), met and married her “new” husband, all the while navigating her world with a strength and finesse I wish I could emulate.
In many ways, I feel as though I “came of age” along with Joy. I went back to college when she was half way through her undergraduate work. In a different academic institution from my daughter’s, I focused on Women’s Studies, English, and Religious Studies. Her major (at the time) was Sociology. I found some of the material we were reading and learning overlapped–especially regarding women.
By this time, I had long stopped trying to instill Joy with my “truths.” Instead, I began to trust that as she integrated the knowledge and wisdom of our ancestors (college curriculum) with her life experiences, a creative space would open up from which she could molt and transform as she applied her unique “take” on things to her particular circumstances. It was relatively easy to watch it happen since that same process was taking place with me. Letting go of what I thought needed to be tightly held and opening up to that mysterious “unknown” produced a welcome peace.
Recently Joy spent a week visiting me in her old “home state,” reconnecting with family members as well as the landscape she left years ago. We enjoyed some delicious time together–most memorably in the early mornings over black coffee before we got going on the business of the day. “Do you remember…?” And off we’d go down that proverbial memory lane, bumping into Vera along the way.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.